Why Getting Old Isn't That Bad
There aren't many things in life that get better with age. Cars lose thousands in value once they drive off the lot. Houses get termites. And food? It eventually gets moldy. Wine, in this regard, is almost in a class by itself.
The history behind wine and its aging potential is rooted in the distant past, when we humans were constantly trying to invent new ways to preserve our food. Think about cheese, or smoked salmon, or muesli - these are foods that were designed to last without refrigeration. After all in the Dark Ages, refrigerators were damn hard to find.
Wine was considered for many centuries to be the safest form of drink. In the days before modern water supplies and chlorination, water sources were often more than a little suspect. It wasn't just a matter of taste, either - drink a bad glass and you die. Wine by nature was wisest choice of beverage, as it was cleansed by fermentation (and drinking and driving on a horse wasn't considered dangerous). The fact that some wines stuck around longer was an added bonus.
At some point people began to figure out that some wines actually tasted better with some bottle age. Certain wines tasted a whole lot better after 20 years or more, but not all of them. Wine lovers started to understand that certain varietals, vineyards and winemakers produced age worthy bottles, while others did not. Fast forward to the modern age and we are still trying to figure out what makes one wine age better than another, especially in California, where we don't have the history like that in Europe. What is the secret? Tannin structure? Acidity? Maturity of the winemaker?
I have had the luxury in my life of tasting a large amount of older Californian wines. The best older wines I have tasted include Napa cabs (no duh), but other standouts have been old California Pinot Noir, as well as the occasional shocker like a 1974 Grand Cru Chenin Blanc. A surprising number of Napa cabs that have huge reputations (and price tags) have not aged well at all. Same goes for Zinfandel. To a wine collector this presents a huge challenge. The wine critics don't seem to know what constitutes a well-aging wine, so do we have to make our choices by trial-and-error?
One thing that I have noticed is that many of the wines made prior to the mid 1980's seem to have held up better than their younger cousins. So that begs a question, did winemaking or viticultural practices change between now and then? The answer is yes, some winemakers have altered their winemaking styles to suit the palates of wine critics, who have tended in the past to prefer big, juicy red wines. The drift towards this style has caused many wines to be made in a "drink-me-now" style, where they show lush, plump fruit flavors upon release, causing wine critics to oh and ah and write glowing reviews. The problem with this is that they (and the public) are being duped; most of these wines, like a fresh glass of milk, will only get worse with age.
Over the past few months I have poured Lumen at a number of tasting events, alongside some old Lane Tanner wines. My favorite was pouring our 2013 Pinot Noir alongside a 1995 Lane Tanner Sierra Madre Vineyard - same winemaker, same vineyard, same style - to get a preview of what the Lumen Pinot Noir will taste like in 19 years. Every single one of Lane's older wines are remarkable. They age as well as any Burgundy, and if you put one in a blind tasting, that is what most wine experts would think it is.
And what is Lane's secret? Well, without giving away too much, I would have to say that Lane's wines age well because she makes them in an honest way. They are not "futzed with"; they are made in the same exact style she made them 20 years ago. She has also figured out what vineyards produce the best fruit - and she has told me that Sierra Madre Vineyard is her all-time favorite. The fruit is brought in at an earlier stage of ripeness than most other winemakers, and we end up with a wine that is fresh and lively in its youth, although tightly wound. The wine then develops over the years, and is gorgeous through every stage of that development.
One fun trick I like to perform is to open a bottle of Lumen and drink a glass, then recork it and sample a little over the next few days. I have found that the wines (especially the Pinot) get better and better each day I try them, up to about five days. This can be a good test for age ability in most wines, and I can tell you that most wines won't pass this test.
As we head into yet another holiday season, let's not focus on ourselves getting older, but rather celebrating the fact that Lumen will taste even better next year when we open the same vintage.
- Will Henry